Slopestyle has been a big part of the X Games since 1997. In the winter. On snow. Mountain biking was last contested at X Games in 2000. In the winter. On snow.
Wait, come again?
True story. The first four Winter X Games, from 1997 to 2000, featured Downhill, Speed and Biker X Snow Mountain Biking. Mutli-sport madman Shaun Palmer won the first men's event; MTB legend Missy Giove won the women's.
This week, slopestyle comes to dirt. For the first time in X Games history, mountain biking slopestyle athletes will compete alongside their fellow action sports pros in the traditional summer X events such as RallyCross, skateboarding, BMX and FMX at X Games Munich.
What can fans expect to see? Sixteen of the best freeride mountain bikers in the world competing for an X Games gold medal in a Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour (FMBWT) Diamond (top-tier) event. A unique, jaw-dropping slopestyle course situated on Munich's Olympic Hill (Olympiaberg), also home to the Skateboard and BMX Big Air ramps. And thousands of gravity-crazed European slopestyle fans there to cheer them on.
"It's a very big moment for slopestyle," said Freeride Mountain Biking Association vice president Tarek Rasouli. "For our athletes to be able to ride in the X Games is huge and it should help give the sport and the platform a big push forward."
Slopestyle, along with dirt jumping and big mountain riding, is a form of freestyle mountain biking commonly called freeriding. It's also a relatively new competition format for mountain bikers. The very first event, Joyride Slopestyle, took place in 2003 in the famed Bone Yard bike park on the slopes of British Columbia, Canada's Whistler Ski Resort, freeriding's mecca. Riders took untimed, half-mile runs on a course filled with jumps, wall rides and other features performing tricks on the way down. Each run was scored based on the rider's style, amplitude, fluidity and technical difficulty.
The initial competition gave rise to Crankworx, the annual gravity-fueled, bacchanalian, mountain biking festival that takes place in Whistler. The Joyride continues to be the seminal event each year at Crankworx and the slopestyle competition and course at X Games Munich will have a lot in common with the one used there. While slopestyle competition scoring has remained largely unchanged in its brief history, other aspects of slopestyle -- such as the equipment, courses and tricks -- have evolved quickly, says pro rider and X Games Munich competitor Cam McCaul.
"People are linking these really huge runs together now with a diverse mix of tricks," McCaul said. "It's one of the things that makes slopestyle mountain biking special: You have to be a really well-rounded rider to win. Plus, the course building has evolved as much as the riding. The jumps and features aren't just bigger, they're built better, and that is more conducive to progressive riding."
With an X Games gold medal and maximum FMBWT points on offer in the first Diamond event of the season, you can expect to see the top names in slopestyle climbing the start tower in Munich. Canadian rider and 2012 overall FMBWT champion Brandon Semenuk, current 2013 points leader Sam Pilgrim of Great Britain and a cast of European big air specialists including Swedish rider Martin Söderström, Belgian rider Thomas Genon, Spanish rider Andreu Lacondeguy, and local German hero Peter Henke are podium front-runners.
One of freeriding's best-known veterans, Darren "The Claw" Berrecloth, is also in the field. Although injuries and a focus on filming movie parts have Berrecloth competing less in recent years, he can still put medal-worthy runs together. The 16-competitor field will get two runs each in the elimination round with the top 10 riders advancing to the finals.
"I like Semenuk, Pilgrim, Söderström and Brett Rheeder," said Berrecloth when asked to handicap the field. "Personally, I'm just trying to relearn all my old tricks and get in as much practice as possible to keep up with the younger guys."
In contrast to the BMX Vert, Park and Big Air athletes, who ride bikes with smaller frames, no suspension and 20-inch wheels, Slopestyle competitors ride bigger 26-inch-wheel mountain bikes. A slopestyle bike is made to handle all the massive airs, variable course conditions, high speeds and abuse they see in competition. Most riders at the X Games will have front and rear suspension to help smooth out the takeoffs and landings on jumps and help the bike track better on course. Although some, like Pilgrim, still prefer to ride hardtail bikes with only a front suspension fork.
"A lot of times, the decision to ride full-suspension or hardtail comes down to who the guy's sponsor is as well," said McCaul. "If your bike sponsor doesn't make a good slopestyle-specific bike [a common scenario with smaller manufacturers], you're probably better off riding a hardtail, dirt jump mountain bike. But with the size of the courses we are seeing regularly, the progression is definitely toward full suspension."
"The assignment we got was, 'Go big, go very big,'" said course builder Markus Hampl, who also built the course for Red Bull Berg Line held in May in Winterberg, Germany. "The course has straight jumps, hip jumps, huge step downs, some boxes to jump on and jump off, and a big air jump for the end. It's a fitting course for what is really a big step forward for Europe and for mountain biking."
In addition to competing in Mountain Bike Slopestyle in Munich, Berrecloth is also on hand with Hampl and the course design team as a consultant. He hosts his own annual slopestyle event, The Bearclaw Invitational, and has helped build numerous courses over the years. After a first look and test ride at the Munich course, Berrecloth told us wryly, "it's pretty big."
"From everything I've heard and seen, we are all going to need to put our big-boy pants on for this one," said McCaul. "All of us are used to big jumps. But I hear the finishing jump is 60 feet from takeoff to landing. That's huge by any of our standards."
Backflips, cork 720s, truck drivers, bar spins, superman seat grabs, flat spin 360s. The tricks should sound familiar. Slopestyle borrows heavily from other two-wheeled X Games disciplines like BMX Dirt Jump or Moto X Freestyle. What might be surprising is the DNA it shares with some Winter X Games events.
"Clearly we get some of our inspiration from BMX and motocross," said McCaul. "But because we are on a mountain, riding lifts, and doing tricks on things like wall rides and logs, there's a connection to skiing and snowboarding slopestyle too."
Rasouli hopes the Mountain Bike Slopestyle competition in Munich will be a great introduction to the sport for the X Games audience.
"These are the best riders in the world doing amazing tricks on one of the best courses ever built," Rasouli said. "We've established the FMBWT and took the sport to another level. Now we've shown the time is right to be part of X Games, and it's going to be an absolute highlight."
With additional reporting from X Games contributing writer Colin Bane.